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Ottawa jazz fans show their appreciation for Oliver Jones' 76-year career (review)

Oliver Jones Trio Farewell Tour
NAC Presents
Theatre, National Arts Centre, Ottawa
Thursday, May 19, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Updated May 25, 2015

Some musicians might add special guests or a spectacular repertoire for their farewell tour. Oliver Jones just continues to play the jazz tunes he loves – superbly well.

Oliver Jones had an easy rapport with both the audience and his musicians (including bassist Éric Lagacé) at his Ottawa farewell concert at the National Arts Centre on May 19. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Supported by his “sons”, the musicians he's collaborated with for the last decade – Éric Lagacé on double bass and Jim Doxas on drums – the Montreal pianist performed two fast-moving sets of standards to a sold-out house in the NAC Theatre on Thursday. The show was a paean to the Great American Songbook with a big side helping of Oscar Peterson, well-seasoned with swing and good humor.

In January, Jones announced he would be retiring for good this year, after a triple heart bypass last year and 76 years of playing piano. That gave a special importance to this show as the last time he might ever play Ottawa.

The audience acknowledged this with an immediate and hearty standing ovation as soon as Jones came on stage. Throughout the show, he was warmly received, with several people standing to clap after notable musical passages, and very strong applause after each song.

During the intermission, the NAC asked patrons to sign farewell messages on cards, which would be inserted in a Guest Book to be given to Jones at the end of night; people were lined up five and six deep around the table to write messages. On the other side of the theatre foyer, Jones, Doxas, and Lagacé sat at a table signing CDs and having friendly chats with fans. There was such a long line-up that they continued the signing after the concert.

Jones opened the concert with the charming standard “Falling in Love with Love”. It showed off the easy rapport he had with Lagacé and Doxas, as he frequently traded fours with them, each of them reinterpreting the melody but retaining its cheerful bounce. Jones has always had the reputation of a fine technical pianist, and his hands were as speedy and sure as ever. He looked in good health, moving easily and happily talking at length with the audience.

You could hear his origins as a classical pianist in the following jazz standard, in which he inserted touches of a more formal baroque style before returning to the upbeat rhythm. Lagacé in particular enhanced the piece with evocative bowed bass solos and strongly plucked rhythms.

Oscar Peterson was Jones' mentor and major influence – “without Oscar in my life, and his family, I would probably have not become a pianist,” he told the audience between songs. He gave pride of place in the concert to several Peterson compositions: a quick taste of “Place St. Henri”, in a speedy, pointillist version with the notes almost circling back on themselves; and the lovely, serene ballad “When Summer Comes”, with Jones' romantic piano enhanced by bowed bass and atmospheric cymbals and muted snares.

The trio segued into “Georgia on My Mind”, which showed how Jones often approached songs. He would let the melody appear slowly, coalescing from a flurry of notes, and then immerse himself in it, before Doxas and Lagacé joined in to add body and emphatic rhythms. While he contributed some improvisatory passages throughout, he kept them short, sticking mostly to the melody and not dwelling on any one song. But he and Lagacé did have fun with this number, in a back-and-forth musical duel of one-upmanship, each elaborating a phrase in a more and more complicated manner.

Jones included only one of his own songs in the show: the calypso number “Stan Pat”, which began with an extended drum solo from Doxas: a powerful bass drum beat under muted snare lines. It was a dramatic opening which included a wide range of textures and tempos, with cymbal taps and hand drumming, before Jones finally joined in with a sunny piano rhythm. Doxas added further short solos during the song, before it ended with huge cymbal crashes and bright piano notes.

Throughout the show, Jones played it relatively safe with the music and the musical choices. The set-list was stuffed with familiar songs; the format of the concert changed little from his 2013 show in the NAC Studio. In particular, he included several medleys, including the two that ended the first set. “Someone to Watch Over Me”, played with great affection and beauty, segued smoothly and naturally into “What a Wonderful World”, with a strong touch of Louis Armstrong's bright happiness. It was a fine juxtaposition, but it didn't give him much time to explore either song.

He ended the nearly-hour-long first set with a Gershwin medley, giving “Rhapsody in Blue” its full gravity with resounding bass chords on piano matched with Lagacé's bowed bass, then following it with brief snatches of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, “It Ain't Necessarily So”, “Summertime”, “The Man I Love”, “Who Could Ask for Anything More?”, and finally a sparkling “I Got Rhythm”. The audience erupted in extremely strong applause, and a partial standing ovation.

As he has in previous shows, Jones invited the audience to submit suggestions during the intermission: anything but country or hip-hop. The basket at the front of the stage held many slips of paper, which the three musicians divided between them, reading out possible pieces for Jones to play. He joked that he'd give each member of the audience a hundred dollar bill if no one suggested “Misty”, but he'd never had to pay out yet – he also didn't play that piece.

He began with piece that hadn't been requested: a short, pretty lullaby “for my youngest fan. This little girl, her name is Violet, she's here and she's only 10 days old!” Then came the favourites: “Take the 'A' Train”, a classical intro that morphed into “Cheek to Cheek”, a Sinatra-influenced “Fly Me to the Moon”, and “Take Five” with the piano covering both the melody and the deep contrasting piano vamp. He combined “Round Midnight” with “Body and Soul” and “My Funny Valentine”, giving each of them a blues tinge.

During “Sweet Georgia Brown”, Doxas took one of the sheets of paper containing song suggestions and played it with his brushes, adding rustling undertones to Jones' rollicking and strongly accented piano lines. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was quiet and romantic, with bright flurries of piano notes exactly placed, and bowed bass adding sad undertones.

As he did at his 2013 NAC show, Jones urged the audience to “listen very intently to all of the wonderful young Canadian musicians” – even hip-hop artists. “We have so much talent here that we don't ever get the opportunity [to hear]. We always wait for big names coming from Europe or the United States. We have the talent here. Please don't let it go to waste.”

He told the audience that he was happy (even looking forward to “a career in golf”) but “I still feel sad that it's probably the last time that I will be here.”

Looking back, he said, he appreciated “all the encouragement I received from my fellow Canadians that surely helped me to continue my career. ... I have been very, very fortunate to be able to stay here this long. It's been such a wonderful treat for me since I came back after Oscar Peterson convinced me that I was too young to take my first retirement. That was 11 years ago.”

Peterson's daughter Celine (and “my god-daughter”) was sitting in the audience, and Jones thanked her for her support “in one of our last concerts”.

Then he launched into his traditional closing number, Peterson's “Hymn to Freedom”, playing it with classical majesty and fervor. He let the full opening chords uplift the audience and himself, before the bass and drums joined in for a swinging celebration – and finally reached its conclusion in a flourish of drums and piano.

The audience jumped to their feet as soon as Jones played the powerful closing notes to the hymn, and stood there for several minutes, clapping mightily, and cheering and whistling. An NAC usher came on-stage and presented Jones with a large bouquet of white roses before the musicians left the stage. When the applause showed no signs of stopping, Jones returned alone, and performed two rose-themed songs: the lovely and melancholy “La vie en rose”, played tenderly and with a bit of ornamentation, followed by “Honeysuckle Rose” as an upbeat closer. The audience were back up immediately for another ovation, as Jones waved goodbye and thanked them again for being there over the years.

Since he announced his retirement, Jones has continued to perform regularly, everywhere from Saskatoon to Bern, Switzerland. Oliver Jones is scheduled to hit the Canadian jazz festival circuit in June and July, with shows at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival on June 20, Victoria Jazzfest on June 24, Vancouver Jazz Festival on June 25, Toronto Jazz Festival on June 28, Edmonton Jazz Festival on July 2, and the Halifax Jazz Festival on July 14.

But local jazz fans do have another chance to hear him only a few hours from here: the biggest event of the farewell tour will be a gala concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 7, with both his trio and with l'Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal.

And next month, Jones will be back in Ottawa to play a concert with a completely different repertoire at the Music and Beyond Festival on Monday, July 11. For that concert, the festival tells us, Jones will perform his favourite classical pieces solo in the first half, and then will reunite with Doxas and Lagacé in the second half for a hommage to Oscar Peterson. The concert is still part of Jones' farewell tour.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca review of Oliver Jones' 2013 concert in the NAC Studio:

Updated May 25: Added information about the July 11 Music and Beyond concert.